Indian hockey isn’t new to turbulent times. Be it related to administration or on-field heroics, Indian hockey is always in the news. What is supposed to be India’s national game, is only looked up as a face saver and a solace among fans whenever the Indian cricket team suffers embarrassing losses.
However, the recently concluded Hockey Asia Cup changed it all. Scoring 28 goals and giving away only a measly six, India completely dominated all opponents in style. Apart from a lone 1-1 draw against South Korea in the Super 4s, the team beat all other opponents convincingly. The tournament reaffirmed India’s position as the best in Asia, as of now.
When Manpreet Singh first took charge early this year, it was because senior pro and mainstay P. R. Sreejesh was injured. However, the seasoned campaigner took to the job like fish to water. Just when the team was getting into the groove under Manpreet, Roelant Oltmans was sacked and with the Asia Cup round the corner, Indian hockey was once again in panic mode.
But the appointment of Sjoerd Marijne, who emphasised on a dynamic hockey play and promised to plug defensive lapses, changed it all. Under Manpreet and Marijne, India became the Asian champion — almost after a decade and put hockey again in a position of repute.
Looking at the bigger picture, it would be a fitting finale to the year if India, under Manpreet, comes up with a similar performance in the Hockey World League Finals, scheduled in December. Locking horns with the likes of Australia and the creme le da creme of Europe, India has a huge mountain to climb.
However, the captain isn’t worried about the enormity of it. “The World League Final is the most important tournament for the year. I am happy that we are going into it as Asian Champions. It adds a lot of value also for the fact that we are the host nation. It would be a great test of character for all of us as we will be pitted against the best, but we have our plans in place,” the captain said.
Elaborating further on how he plans to approach the World League Final, Manpreet, who is now a Red Bull athlete, said, “We have gone back to the drawing board without basking in the Asia Cup glory. Although we won, we made some errors in the Asia Cup. We are working on improving our penalty corner conversion rates, creating more chances upfront and scoring off them. The best example of it would be the final of the Asia Cup, where we created a lot of chances in the final quarter but failed to convert because of poor finishing.
"It was probably due to the pressure of playing a final. We need to overcome these jitters. We have also identified that we are good in counter attacking play. This has been one of the positives in the recent past and I am happy that we have been able to consistently excel at it.”
Manpreet hoped that he would have the experience of Rupinderpal Singh and Sreejesh for the flagship tournament. “Harmanpreet (Singh) is doing a good job as a dragflicker and if we have Rupinderpal Singh, too, fit for the World League final, we will have two menacing dragflickers who would add a lot of teeth to our attack. I hope Sreejesh can also be back as he is the best goalkeeper in the world. And once he is back, I would be happy to hand over the captain’s armband, too,” he said, laughing.
The Punjab lad admitted the team didn’t have any hiccups in adjusting to Marjine’s style of leadership. “Both Marjine and Oltmans are from the same country and hence their thinking and approach towards the game isn’t vastly different. What Marjine has done is, he has induced a player-driven attitude in the team. It encourages all of us to take more responsibilities and keeps us in good stead to assess ourselves.
"During the Asia Cup, it was the players who came up with ideas and we played on those lines. And it has helped us. Another aspect is how Marjine is open to out-of-the-box discussions. Any one of us can pitch an idea and he improvises on it. He is a great motivator, too. He has motivated players with his pep talks, too,” the 25-year-old captain added.
Holding the team together when one is just 25, isn’t an easy task but Manpreet appeared unfazed at the responsibility. With Indian hockey being player-driven, Manpreet said his job as a leader is negligible. “I don’t look at myself as the captain of the team. In a team game, there can never be one captain. At the end of the day, all 11 of us are responsible for every single move on the turf. And, when everyone has to take responsibility, we need to have 11 captains on the field.
"We have taken this seriously and everyone is now a leader in their own position. We have spoken a lot about teamwork and even if any individual commits an error, we rectify it as a team moving forward,” he concluded.
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